While I’m away Dan is guest blogging through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (part of the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer Series which I recently reviewed). Dan has served with Wycliffe in Papua New Guinea and is currently spending some time with us in The Crowded House.
Here Bonhoeffer comes back to the first issue raised in the first manuscript: that ethics is not about knowing right from wrong, but discerning and living by the will of God.
Bonhoeffer traces the origin of the knowledge of good and evil. Whereas humans had previously known only God as their origin, in the fall they gained knowledge of good and evil. ‘In knowing about god and evil, human beings understand themselves not within the reality of being defined by the origin, but from their own possibilities, namely, to be either good or evil. They now know themselves beside and outside of God, which means they now know nothing but themselves, and God not at all. For they can only know God by knowing God alone. They knowledge of good and evil is thus disunion with God. Human beings can know about good and evil only in opposition to God.’ (300)
The Pharisees are a good example of this. ‘Pharisees are those human beings, admirable to the highest degree, who subject their entire lives to the knowledge of good and evil and who judge themselves as sternly as their neighbours—and all to the glory of God, whom they humbly thank for this knowledge.’ (310) They are the epitome of the contrast between the old disunity and the new unity in Christ. ‘Just as the question and the temptation of the Pharisees arise out of the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil, so Jesus’ answer springs from unity with God, with the origin, from a place where the disunion of human beings from God has been overcome. The Pharisees and Jesus speak on completely different planes.’ (311) The Pharisees’ questions to Jesus are not unlike many of ours’, ‘questions with which we call on him for a decision in cases of conflict’, either-or questions on vital life decisions.
So how does Jesus respond to these questions? Bonhoeffer points out how in the New Testament Jesus ‘seems to answer a completely different question from the one he was asked. He seems to speak past the question, but in this very act he completely addresses the questioner.’ (312) He does not abide by the laws of the Pharisees and even allows his disciples to eat grain in the field on the Sabbath when they would not have starved if they had hadn’t. He heals a sick woman who could have waited another day. ‘Jesus evades all clear questions that seek to tie him down. That is why the Pharisee considers Jesus a nihilist, a man who knows and respects nothing but his own law, one who keeps saying “I am”, a blasphemer of God.’ (312-313) On the other hand, ‘no one can detect in Jesus the uncertainty and anxiety of someone who acts arbitrarily.’ This is because Jesus acts in the total freedom of knowing the will of God. ‘There are never several possibilities, conflicts, or alternatives, but always only one. Jesus calls this one option the will of God. He calls it his good to do this will. This will of God is his life. He lives and acts not out of knowledge of good and evil, but out of the will of God.’ (313)
Bonhoeffer exhorts the reader to live single-mindedly to do God’s will (318-319). However, how can we know God’s will? We are not to abandon reflection, relying on intuition. We are also not to rely on principles, as each case is different. Instead we are to ‘discern again and again what the will of God is. Heart, intellect, observation, and experience must work together in this discernment.’ (321) How do we discern? We are to be ‘metamorphosed’, renewed, completely changed, we are to overcome our fallen nature by being conformed to Christ (Rom 12:2; Eph 5:9) (322). We are to put away all other sources of knowledge of good and evil and, daily, discern the will of God in Christ (323).
Bonhoeffer explains how one who discerns the will of God needs to do the will of God. This is where true submission to the will of God really happens (326). However, even this separation of concepts—hearing and doing—is a false separation, because the one who truly hears will do. ‘A hearing that does not // instantaneously become doing turns once again into that “knowing” that gives rise to judging and thus to the disappearance of any doing. … Hearers of the word, therefore, who are not at the same time also doers, necessarily deceive themselves (James 1:22). Believing that by knowing they possess the word of God, they have already lost it again, because they assume that it is possible, even for a moment, to have the word of God other than by doing it.’ (328-329)
This manuscript is concluded with an exposition of love, without which nothing is pleasing to God (332-338). And love is Christ. ‘Love is not what Christ does and suffers but what Christ does and suffers. Love is always Jesus Christ himself. Love is always God himself. Love is always God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.’ (335)